Thursday, October 7, 2010

Hélène Berr's Journal

Hélène Berr lived in Paris during the Nazi occupation and worked with an organisation devoted to saving Jewish children from “deportation” by the Nazis. About 500 children were sent to safety by this group.

As a Jew herself, Hélène was also in continual danger, but denied herself the opportunity to escape so her work with children could continue. She, along with her parents, was eventually arrested, “deported” and murdered in a concentration camp.

Journal is her diary, kept through the war years until her arrest. It was brought to publication by her niece who provides an afterward to conclude the story, informing the reader of Hélène’s fate after her last diary entry.

This book was not easy reading. As a diary it is a collection of experiences that are often unrelated and cryptic. There are gaps in the “narrative” when days and even weeks go by without an entry. But its structure and nature as a diary is not the hardest aspect for the reader. The recorded experiences and thoughts of real life horrors are the most difficult thing to take in and comprehend. Could these things have happened in “civilised” Europe so recently, within the lifetime of my parents?

The diary starts in April 1942, in a time of relative calm when there is a degree of freedom and it initially focuses upon Hélène’s relationships with family, friends and love interests with little attention given to the political situation.

As the diary progresses, hints of unrest begin to appear as political events start to have an impact on her life, such as being forced to wear a star to identify her as a Jew in public and the arrest and temporary imprisonment of her father.
More and more the realities of Hitler’s anti-Semitic agenda become evident, especially when fellow Jews start to be “deported” – a euphemism for being transported to concentration camps.
Hélène struggles to understand what is going on around her and this becomes the dominant topic of her writing.

“Is it not dire that I, reacting and rebelling against this, am an exception, whereas it ought to be the people who are capable of doing such things who are abnormal?”(Hélène Berr, 9 Nov 1943)

Journal was translated form French into English by David Bellos who provided an essay at the end of the book. The following paragraph from that essay is an astute summary of Hélène's diary and society portrayed within it.

The Journal is a precious unique record of denial - of Hélène's initial unwillingness to see what was staring her in the face - and of the blindness of her family, her immediate milieu among the elite of Paris students and then, more broadly of her neighbours, her colleagues, her whole community, its policemen and officials. For that reason, it is also an historic document showing just how the Final Solution was imposed: by incremental stealth, by secrecy, in an atmosphere of utter confusion. It explains and demonstrates how so many people really did not know what was going on before their eyes.

For more information about Hélène Berr:
Hélène Berr

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